If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads. Francois Mauriac
Not so much reviews as what I’ve enjoyed (or in a few cases not enjoyed and why). I have eclectic tastes but what marks a good book for me is being able to sink into the writing. I’ll put up with writing I can’t quite get on with if the story really reels me in, but I’ll read the slowest novel ever if I love those words. Many of these books have inspired me and influenced my own writing. I like to aim high!
PS I review a book, either indie or trad, in my monthly newsletter so if you’re interested, you can sign up here (and browse past newsletters to see if it’s to your taste). I also post mid-term reviews to my blog, here.
‘…a time when the air was as clean as the time before the words clean and dirty had ever been imagined.’
I bought this book (which won a prestigious Australian literature prize) as the blurb promised a good tale of taking on a nasty mining company and, hopefully, winning the day. What I found inside the covers was very different.
The story is told from three perspectives.
August Gondiwindi and her sister Jedda were raised by their grandparents on a former Aboriginal mission station turned wheat farm, Prosperous House. A happy childhood, with loving, involved grandparents. But when Jedda disappears when the girls are about ten and twelve, August’s world shatters. In her late teens she moves away, ending up in London in a meaningless job and letting time slip by with no real purpose. Now, after ten years, she has returned for her grandfather’s funeral, planning to go back to London once it is all over.
Albert Gondiwindi, the grandfather, is seen through the dictionary of Aboriginal words he is compiling, with telling commentary alongside.
Finally, there is Rev Ferdinand Greenleaf, who founded the mission in the late 19th century While imprisoned during WW1 because of his German origins, he writes a long letter to the British Society of Ethnography setting out the horrific history of Prosperous House and begging the authorities for intervention to prevent the continuing atrocities and destruction of Aboriginal culture.
The basis of the story is the age-old classic of a lost soul (August) coming to terms with their past and finding themselves through a cause which they realise means everything to them. I found August’s story the least interesting.
For me there was more depth in Greenleaf’s tale. His heart-rending and horrific account of white treatment of Aboriginals is a well known one, now. Most people are also aware that it was the well-intentioned as well as the downright murderous brutality which warped and largely destroyed the lives of generations after European settlement. The reverend’s spiritual struggle and his eventual reluctant acceptance that perhaps there is no difference between his god and the local god(s) made me feel for his 19th century angst, while understanding August’s dismissal of him for what he had helped to destroy.
The key strength was in Albert’s dictionary (long-winded though it is at times!), where the teachings of his ancestors and the descriptions of Aboriginal life and lore revealed a rich depth of civilisation which most people, so very, very sadly, would hardly be aware of even today. An amazing culture, so aligned with the land and the river. As Albert says, ‘before the words clean and dirty had ever been imagined.’
Having said all that, I have one major issue with this publication. Given it’s a book about colonial supremacy I can’t imagine how the publishers and the author missed the irony of using American spelling and grammar in a book about Australia published in the UK. I nearly stopped reading at that point.
A recommended read for its educational value rather than entertainment.
The Yield Tara June Winch
‘It was like dreaming‘
This novella arrived in the post, sent by a friend with a note simply saying I might find it interesting. My friend was correct. Not only interesting, but fascinating, especially given my current project is a magical realism novel which I feel The Deep is, although apparently it’s classified as science fiction.
Using the horrific historical fact that ships’ captains threw pregnant African slaves overboard, Solomon builds a world of mermaid-like beings who have evolved from the foetuses born underwater and initially nursed by whales. Wow. An idea and a half!
Once a year these people, known as the Wajinru, gather in their thousands for the Remembrance, presided over by the historian, who holds the sum of all the historic memories of the race within them. At the Remembrance the historian shares these memories so the Wajinru can remember also, albeit briefly. For afterwards, the historian takes them back into themselves, leaving the people to live a carefree life unburdened by the past.
Yetu has been the historian since she was 14 years old and after some 20 years, the weight of all this history weighs heavily on her. She wants to be herself, not the sum of her people’s past with her own identity fading into nothingness. Almost on a whim, she abandons her people in the middle of a Remembrance and swims away and up to the surface in a bid to save herself. What she discovers when she washes up on an island inhabited by ‘two legs’ is, eventually, freedom indeed, but not how she imagined it.
There are many things to enjoy about this novella. Solomon’s evocation of the deep sea, its dangers and wonders, and of the Wajinru themselves, is beautifully written. An almost mystical setting with some wonderfully pragmatic characters such as Yetu’s amaba, mother. All the characters are robust, even the minor ones. Yetu herself is a complex individual, bright, troubled, torn between her love of and duty to her people and her desire to live a life of her own. Oori, the ‘two legs’ who helps Yetu when she is first cast onto the island, is brilliantly depicted with her self-isolation, pride, deep hurt at her losses, and her fears. The gentle to and fro of Oori and Yetu’s developing relationship swells and subsides like the ocean waves, carrying the reader along to its unexpected and satisfying conclusion.
A highly worthwhile read.
The Hugo Award for Best Novella 2020
Nebula Award for Best Novella 2020
The Deep Rivers Solomon
Dare to read it aloud
I’m late to the party on this one, but I hadn’t heard of this book/series until I was searching for something to give to a keen young reader who enjoyed my Guardians of the Forest series (clever lad!). I was impressed by the several thousand reviews and bought a copy for myself as well
Meggie knows her mother isn’t dead, only that she is away, apparently having adventures but for some reason unable to return to her family just yet. Meggie doesn’t mind too much as she is content with her father, Mo’s, company. Mo loves books and repairs them for a living. Piles of books are to be found all over the house and both Mo and Meggie enjoy nothing better than having their noses in a good story. Meggie even has her own book box to house her favourite tales. But one thing Mo won’t do is read out loud, even to his daughter. One day, Meggie discovers why.
She also discovers why they have moved so often. For Mo is a wanted man. Not for any criminal action on his part, but by an evil, terrifying character called Capricorn, whom Mo read out of a story many years before. When Capricorn finally catches up with Mo, Meggie must deal with terrifying adventures in real life, not just through the pages of a book.
I found Inkheart fascinating given it’s written for children. Or at least it has a twelve-year-old protagonist. Each chapter is headed with very adult snippets from famous books. The expected ones are there: Narnia, Wind in the Willows etc. So is Fahrenheit 41. Make what you will of that. Much of the tale is very dark, such as the scenes in the red church, and some truly nasty atrocities are implied. Now I don’t feel nearly so bad about my monstrous creatures ravaging the Madach farmlands in Legend of the Winged Lion. What is fascinating is how the main (of this world) characters grapple with the storybook-style good vs evil reality which Mo set loose.
In contrast to (most of) the ‘baddies’ the of this world characters are complex and three dimensional. Mo’s struggle to protect Meggie, his heartbreak over his wife, and his not very inspired attempts to put things right are very human. No superhero dad here. Elinor is the kind of character we might expect in a story to never be afraid, yet she is. Furious and afraid.
As for Meggie, she learns a lot about herself, those closest to her, and the world at large. Vividly written and fast moving, I didn’t notice the extraordinary length of the book (543 pages), and can well understand it’s mass following.
PS They made the film in 2008, which has of course had mixed reviews from the book fans. I must track it down. Helen Mirren would be, I suspect, a more elegant Elinor than I had pictured but Brendan Fraser as Mo? I’m in!
Inkheart Cornelia Funke
Cloud Cuckoo Land
February’s book is something altogether different and an extraordinary read.
I haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, but it’s most certainly on my list now, as I’m told it’s even better than Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Five characters in different places and times, but each of them outcasts in their way, are bound together by the tale of Aethon, a story supposedly told by Diogenes about a Greek shepherd who aspires to find Cloud Cuckoo Land. For there is a land of milk and honey where no one is cold or hungry, and all are accepted for what they are.
There’s Konstance, 14 years old and alone in a space ship carrying humanity’s remnants on a 500 year plus journey to a new earth, the original having been destroyed by said humanity. Konstance is shown the Atlas in the Library and becomes obsessed with walking the dead earth’s images, exploring and longing for a world she has never known in reality.
We have Anna, a young seamstress in Constantinople at the time of the Ottoman siege and eventual victory. With no talent for sewing and a dying sister to care for, Anna and her sister find comfort in Aethon’s story when she rescues the frail, aged and largely illegible text from an old priory.
Omeir – how my heart went out to Omeir, my favourite of these characters – with his hare lip and his young, loved and cared for oxen. And his grandfather’s wisdom to guide him through the nightmare when he and his oxen are recruited into the Ottoman army and are present at the siege.
Then Zeno, 86 years old, having more or less worked out his difficult life and now content translating Aethon’s tale and sharing its joys with a group of ten-year-olds – until he discovers there’s one more thing he needs to do make life complete.
And finally we have Seymour. I of course immediately loathed Seymour, but as his story unfolded he became my second favourite character. Trustyfriend the owl broke my heart. Living in a Forest which has had to battle for its survival several times over the centuries, my empathies for Seymour were high, I’m afraid.
The various ways the stories weave their threads into the cloth of Aethon’s tale, the interconnections, the symbols, the sheer humanity of the players, drew me in entirely.
Definitely a book to read at least once more, to get into the little bits, and go, Yes, of course, and feel smug about knowing what that previously obscure section is about.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr
My review book for my January newsletter won the Women’s Prize in 2021 and is an international best seller.
‘I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.’ CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew’
Clarke quotes this at the beginning of her novel, and how very appropriate it is.
Piranesi lives in the House, where he assumes he has always lived. The House provides and he is content, happy. He spends his days exploring and measuring, writing everything up in his Journal. His only human contact is with the Other who visits weekly, carrying a shining device. The Other is, Piranesi believes, his friend.
Odd things begin happening, strange messages are found, the Other warns Piranesi there is an Enemy in the House who would do him harm. The life Piranesi believes is the only life he has known begins to unravel. Whereas once he accepted, now he questions.
I have long been a fan of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I read it when it first came out several years ago and my lasting impression is of rich, vivid settings, fairytale-like characters and a twisting, fascinating tale.
I should therefore have expected the unexpected when I ordered Piranesi. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what the book was about. From the cover, I thought perhaps it might be yet another Greek myth retelling. So it was with much surprise – and some confusion – that I jumped into Chapter 1 with its details of Moon risings, Vestibules, Halls and Statues (the capitalisations copy the book). However, the telling of the narrator’s life in the World, his exploration of the House, how he organises his days, his Tables and Journals is all so beautifully written that I went with the flow and waited for some clue to what was going on. It’s the kind of story I love, and in this I wasn’t disappointed. Over time the clues were dropped, inklings spotted, and events and motivations clarified.
But for me that was all that happened. I was waiting for the Big Thing, the Surprise, the Twist, but it never came. The mystery unfolded, the revelations piled on revelations, a new character came into play and all was explained.
And that was that, despite a touch of drama.
Worse, for me, the author continued to not only explain what had gone on but carried on with what happened afterwards. I was left feeling a bit So What? and wished that Clarke had left us with some ambiguity to exercise our imaginations.
A highly worthy read all the same.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
An Unsuitable Match
My review book for my December newsletter is a little lighter than some previous reads. Here’s why I read it and my thoughts.
‘Why on earth, after all you’ve been through, all you’ve survived, all you’ve achieved, why do you want to get married?’
Someone suggested my own book, Keepers, is a Joanna Trollope type of book, so I thought I’d better go read one of hers, having heard of her but not read her. I guess in that this book is about families and their frustrating, moving and complex relationships, the comparison is valid. I’ll let others draw any further comparisons either way.
Rose has always been a good upper middle class wife to her lawyer husband and mother to her children. When he leaves her, in her mid 50s, for a long time mistress and work colleague she is initially devastated. Seven years on, she has her life together again and she’s happy. I’d tend to be happy living in a mews house with garage and garden in central London too, or at least I’d give it a try. Then Tyler walks into her life and sweeps her off her feet. He loved Rose when they were in school, but their paths hadn’t crossed since Tyler moved to New York decades ago. Now, widowed and with a grown daughter, Tyler lets his old love blossom and draws Rose into the romance of it all.
But her three grown children aren’t sure about this. They like the personable Tyler, but they don’t like the way he’s taken their mother’s focus away from them. And when Rose announces they plan to marry, the kids immediately become suspicious of his motives, given that mews house is Rose’s old age pension not to mention their inheritance.
It took me a while to get into this book. I didn’t immediately take to the characters or the situation which seemed a bit too ‘rich’ for us average types. I never took to Tyler who was just too footloose and Peter Pan for my taste. I also found the twins whiny and immature, but I think that was the idea. As for Rose herself, I could sympathise with her dilemma and during the course of the story I came to want the best for her, whatever that was.
An Unsuitable Match is a short read, practical and to the point story telling. Readers of my reviews will know I’m a sucker for deep imagery and beautiful prose, but in this case I was happy to just read the story. Even willing to delay putting out the light until I had finished it (that wasn’t 2 am or anything though).
Will I read more of Joanna Trollope? Maybe, if I happen to stumble on a beachside holiday sometime and I need a truly relaxing read. There IS a reason she’s a best selling author.
An Unsuitable Match, Joanna Trollope
The Silence of the Girls
My review book for my November newsletter is Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.
‘Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … we never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.
I hadn’t read any Pat Barker before, but bought this for my daughter’s birthday and when she said she was enjoying it, I bought my own copy. (We live in different countries so sharing is difficult, sadly.)
It’s the time of the Trojan War. From the high citadel where the women of Lyrnessus seek a last refuge, Briseis must watch the slaughter of her husband and brothers as the Greeks break through the walls and take the city. Her sister-in-law throws herself from the tower rather than face capture, but Briseis chooses life despite her terror. As a queen, young and beautiful, she is a true prize and the hated Achilles, who slew her 14 year-old brother, claims her as his trophy from the battle. What follows is the development of a strange relationship, where Briseis remains forever wary of Achilles, who in turn views her with a different kind of wariness – one which is more a reflection of the longing he retains for his sea nymph mother who comes to him out of the sea on moonlit nights. Overlaid on the relationship between the protagonists is Patroclus, Achille’s boyhood friend and implied lover, and a friend to Briseis.
The contrast between the two men is starkly drawn. Patroclus is kind and thoughtful, even to the slave women, where Achilles is entirely self-absorbed. This self-absorption, his unbending ‘honour’, has drastic consequences for Briseis, and, as we know from the legends, tragic consequences for Patroclus.
The story is told from the points of view of both Briseis and Achilles, which – as my daughter pointed out – is odd given the book is meant to give a voice to the girls. That subtlety had passed me by. The pace is swift, there is lots going on, and the reader is painted a vivid description of life in the Greek camp after nine years of war. The scenes really come to life to the point one is grateful not to have been there. However, I found the character depictions less compelling, not really warming to any of them. At the end of the day, their different fates – even Patroclus – left me unmoved.
I’m not quite sure what this book is meant to be about. As a simple retelling of Troy’s most famous hero from the point of view of one who sees him up close but is not close to him, The Silence of the Girls is a good read. But Achille’s story takes over, as even Barker admits in the last lines of the book. Maybe that’s what it’s about – that the self-absorbed men take over and the girls are silenced, but once they are dead and only the ‘good men’ (but a little foolish) are left, can the girls have a voice. Not sure where that leaves us!
I might risk another Pat Barker, but not with such high expectations.
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel 2018 and the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019
The Silence of the Girls Pat Barker
Where the Crawdads Sing
‘Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat’
I avoided this book for a long time, suspicious as ever of best sellers (and have been recently scarred by that once more – to the extent I took the book to Tesco and left it on the charity table because I was SO fed up). Then a friend whom I trust told me I should get over myself and read Where the Crawdads Sing because the writing is beautiful.
The writing IS beautiful. Absolutely, the writing is beautiful. Despite having to skim, work out from context or ask my US mates, many of the local words (including ‘crawdads’ which I sort of knew but had to check) I found myself sinking into the beautiful writing.
I also found myself loving the omniscient, telling a tale style which is not something us authors are encouraged to do these days. At least, I loved it for a while.
At first, my heart bled for young Kya, abandoned in the marsh. I waited with my stomach in my throat for all kinds of dread things to happen to this little child left so exposed, so isolated. I won’t do spoilers, although I guess there’s no one else left who hasn’t read the book. What I will say, is that by the end of the story I was less emotionally involved with Kya than I was at the beginning. Part of this was because of the omniscient narrator which meant I never got a chance to really get inside Kya’s head, to see and hear and feel her experiences as if I was her.
But a big part of it was because it was a very, very unrealistic plot. From illiterate Marsh Girl to internationally renowned expert without leaving the shack? (Sorry, that’s a spoiler.) Seems rather far-fetched. Perhaps I should have read it as a fairytale. It has a lot in common with Disney princesses.
And then there was the whodunnit. Really, we couldn’t work that one out? Who else could it possibly have been? (No spoiler.)
BUT – a huge BUT– it was every page worth the read. Because the writing IS beautiful, as my friend promised me.
A Number One New York Times Best Seller
Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens
A Gentleman in Moscow
‘Well, where is our purpose now?’
If you had the choice of where to spend decades under house arrest, an elegant hotel should be top of your list. But not for the reasons you might think.
In 1922, Count Rostov, charming member of the Russian aristocracy, is branded a Former Person by the new Bolshevik regime. But a past action of his saves him from being summarily shot. Instead he is taken to the Hotel Metropole and put under permanent house arrest. Not in his former luxurious suite, however, but in a tiny attic room which is to be his home for the next 40 or so years.
The staff – who trip themselves up by referring to him as Your Excellency – are apologetic, while the phlegmatic Rostov sets about making the best of things in an almost British (sorry to the Russians) stoic, stiff upper lip manner. But circumstances change him. While he may be outwardly unemotional, he is also adaptable, and he grows into his very different role with no rancour nor loss of dignity. He adapts so well in fact, finds so much life within the walls of the hotel, that his old and good friend Mishka eventually refers to him as ‘the luckiest man in the world’.
A Gentleman in Moscow is superficially a light read, with much humour. The Count is generally self-deprecating and certainly self-questioning, and the narrator writes of him and the other characters in a kindly humorous manner – a restrained PG Wodehouse, perhaps. Yet these are three dimensional characters, whom the reader can see and hear and sympathise with. Perhaps even the odious Bishop, but others can make that judgement.
Similarly, the setting of what was a violent and grim time in Russia’s history is portrayed in a way I found fascinating. The author’s knowledge of this period, and of Russia’s literary heritage, gives huge authenticity to the story. The use of the occasional footnote to explain certain historical details might seem out of a place in a novel, but they worked, written as they were in the narrator’s style. As for this style? I don’t want to say light hearted, for that would have been insulting to what actually happened. More that the narrator takes every opportunity to poke gentle ridicule at the strength of feelings, at the nonsensical decisions and decrees, and at the way in which human nature of the worst kind eventually undermined what started out as positive and idealistic.
The revolution is the reason Count Rostov is under house arrest in the Metropole, but the fact he can never leave gives the narrator the opportunity to view the next decades as if through a fogged mirror. The world goes by outside in a tumult, with the occasional blast of freezing air making its way through those famous revolving doors. Events impinge on Rostov, certainly, but it’s as if his circumstances protect him from their potential impact. Until they don’t. And when this happens, their force seems more hurtful because of his inability to do a damn thing about any of it. Or perhaps there is something he can do? When he must.
I spent much of the latter half of the book wondering how Rostov’s story might end. All I will say now is that the ending was, for me, perfect.
This is not a book for readers who expect grim tragedy given the setting (although there is tragedy.) It’s also not a fast paced book and it’s long – 460 pp of tiny font (that was a problem I have to say).
This is, however, a book for readers who enjoy humour along with their dose of ‘life’s lessons’. And good writing too. Despite its length, I read it quickly, caught up so thoroughly in Rostov’s story.
Definitely on my ‘read again’ list.
The New York Times Best Seller
A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles
Redhead by the Side of the Road
Great to meet you Anne Tyler!
Micah lives an ordered life, just the way he likes it. He has a routine, he has a job where he calls no man master and his IT illiterate clients are generally respectful and grateful. He also has a girlfriend who fits in as neatly in his routine as Micah’s vacuuming and dishwashing times. He believes himself content.
But then two things happen. The girlfriend tells him she is about to be evicted from her home – Micah is sorry and would like to help but the obvious solution simply evades him. Then the son of his first love, the one from his student days many years ago, turns up claiming to be Michah’s son. In the face of the downright messiness – emotional and physical – of other people’s lives with which Micah now has to deal, his orderliness begins to go out the window. Including the girlfriend. Should he chase his old life, try to recapture it? Or is there another way to contentment?
It’s rare to come across a male lead protagonist in what I would very much call ‘women’s fiction’. There are no crimes or mysteries to solve (in fact the fatherhood mystery is solved instantly and definitively), no plot twists – in fact, there’s no plot at all really. But Micah’s natural kindliness and inability NOT to get involved, endeared him to me from the start. I wanted him to be happy.
This is a short book, which is fine as any longer and I suspect the reader would want to hurry Micah up a bit. As a gently humorous study in human nature, it’s a beautiful read.
This is my first introduction to Anne Tyler and I will be reading more of her work.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
Redhead by the side of the road Anne Tyler
Love after love
The book is set in Trinidad and I was expecting to be fascinated by an unfamiliar setting. In the end, I was more put off as the author appeared to be mostly making fun of the place and the outdated views of its people. Certainly, visiting there is not on my bucket list based on her descriptions!
I love a character driven novel all about people and their mixed up lives and emotions, but I found these characters two dimensional despite the levels of angst each one goes through. When the great happening took place which changed everything, I wasn’t at all upset, especially as it seemed to be there for melodramatic effect. Although it was heavily foreshadowed, I was still taken aback. I was sad not to be affected, as this character was by far the closest thing to someone to root for.
Love after Love confirms my view that I should avoid prize winning books these days. The judges have different criteria than I do for what makes a good read, and I don’t think I’m alone in this view. By the way, leaving out the dialogue marks doesn’t give a book literary merit – it just makes it pretentious.
Love after Love Ingrid Persaud
The hand that first held mine
Like Daphne du Maurier…O’Farrell writes books designed to…bring our most primal fears to the surface ― Daily Mail
Forget Hamnet, which I loved (see below). This earlier novel of O’Farrell’s is a beast of a very different nature and why it took me this long to discover it I have no idea. Talk about how to keep the tension high, and such wonderful, alive characters.
In The Hand That First Held Mine, we meet two women, separated by time.
In the 1950s, Lexie is desperate to escape rural Devon, a forever pregnant mother, and a stiflingly boring home life. A chance encounter over the garden hedge introduces her to Innes, London man-about-town, owner of a literary journal housed in Soho, and all-round sophisticate. Shortly afterwards, Lexie packs her suitcase and takes the train to her future. Initially, she stays in a respectable boarding house, but, as the harridan landlady finally announces, she ‘turns’, into ‘one of them’. This is down to Innes, who is several years older and a lifetime more experienced (I won’t say wiser) than Lexie. I can’t say more than that without spoilers.
In today’s London, Elina, a Finn, lives with her boyfriend, Ted. She seems to have had a baby, but she initially wonders how that all came about and while she loves the little chap, her vagueness about his existence is, frankly, terrifying. We learn that Elina had a traumatic birth, nearly died, and that Ted was there to witness the bloody horror of it all. But as Elina recovers, Ted becomes more and more unsettled and withdrawn as deeply buried memories, hints of past events – which seem to have been triggered by the birth of his son – push their way into his consciousness.
This book had me on the edge of my sofa/chair/bed from page one to the last sentence. As the Mail quote says, primal fears around motherhood, loss, and death meant I’m not sure I actually breathed much while reading. The point at which the reader ‘gets’ it is so cleverly done I laughed, a little hysterically.
A total must read.
The Hand that First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell
How to Belong
After all, what are any of us ever after but the conviction of belonging.
Franklin quotes the above in the opening pages of the novel, and it sums up perfectly what this story is about.
Two women’s lives merge. Both grew up in the Forest of Dean, both left and both have returned for very personal reasons, seeking comfort and a new way forward. There the comparisons end, as Tess and Jo are in all other ways very different people. Tess has carried a heavy burden since childhood, a burden which has been exacerbated rather than eased by those who should care most for her, her family and especially her mother. Jo has grown up in a loving, supportive environment, encouraged to go far, and that’s what she’s done. But now Tess’s burden has ripped her from the one person who has given her unconditional love and a sense of belonging. And Jo’s self-assurance about belonging here, in the Forest, is slipping away, leaving her unrooted and unhappy.
Living in the Forest as I do, I love the way Franklin captures the soul of the place, the good and the shabby, the people and the trees. It’s not chocolate box, as Jo herself points out to a visiting university friend. It’s very real, however. Against this backdrop, Tess and Jo quickly become real too, their problems become the reader’s problems. There’s no obvious way through, and Franklin sows sufficient doubt to make you wonder how there can be a happy ending, or even if there is. This is Franklin’s second novel, and I’m looking forward to the third.
The Song of Achilles
‘Go,’ she says. ‘He waits for you.’
I bought this off the back of Miller’s Circe, which I adored, and while I didn’t love it quite as much, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The young Patroclus, sensitive and trying to do his best, is the awkward kid the big kids pick on, despite his father being the king. When Patroclus accidentally kills a tormentor, he is banished by his father, Menoitios, to live in the household of Achilles’ father, King Peleus. But not before Menoitios has taken the 9-year-old Patroclus to add him to the long list of suitors for the hand of the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Helen chooses Menelaus, but her father demands that all her suitors pledge themselves to come to her aid should the need ever arise. And we all know how that ended.
For reasons young Patroclus never fully understands, the young Achilles takes to him and demands that he be accepted as his own, personal advisor. The two become lovers, and inseparable.
Achilles is destined to be the greatest of the Greek warriors, and despite his sea-nymph mother’s attempts to keep him away from Troy, and Patroclus lack of fighting skills, that is where they end up for ten long years.
Miller tells the story of the soul deep love between Patroclus and Achilles with her usual beautiful imagery, bringing it to life through emotion and words – there’s nothing graphic here, merely sensitively written moving moment after moment. And a true tragedy, as Achilles’ arrogant behaviour finally loses him the one thing he holds dearest. The telling of the role of Briseis, whose family Achilles slays, and who falls in love with Patroclus, provides a sombre counterpoint, a ‘what if’ possibility, as well as being key to the whole sorry ending. A highly worthwhile read.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012
The Song of Achilles Madeleine Miller
The Mermaid of Black Conch
I was a human woman once … some thousand cycles past
Normally I shy away from best sellers as the marketing hype doesn’t always correlate to my own view of a good read. However, a different take on mermaids seemed a good bet and I wasn’t disappointed.
Laid back, easy-going David discovers he’s not singing simply for himself out there in his pirogue on the sunlit Caribbean seas. Someone who’s been in the ocean for a very, very long time is drawn to his voice, and to him. The feeling is mutual, but she’s a mermaid and he’s a human. Then the Americans come to the island, and in an epic battle they catch more than they bargained for. The macho dad is thrilled – after a lifetime of not quite getting where he always saw himself, this is his chance for fame and fortune. The poet son is uneasy but goes along with dad, who’s trying to toughen the young man up. Fame and fortune elude dad once more however, when David rescues the mermaid and manages to get her to his house where he installs her in a bathtub. His plan is simple – hide her until the Americans leave and then return her to the sea. Only, it turns out this can’t happen.
This is a lyrical book, and mystical in its isolated small island setting. It’s also deeply emotional (but not at all sentimental) as the mermaid, Aycayia, slowly transforms into the young woman she once was, before she was cursed for her beauty and her singing by the women of her village and cast into the seas to become a mermaid. We watch as David, very much in love, wins her trust, and as Aycayia learns not only to trust, but to truly love for the first time in her long, long life.
But trouble is brewing, with people and with nature, and the combination of the two brings a climactic ending where we wonder just where this will go. Heart in mouth. Loved it.
Also loved the confident application of different styles within the book. We have David in his older age, writing the story down, and Aycayia remembering her past life, thinking on her new life and, later, on her time with David, in poetic form. There are time jumps and perspective jumps, which for me was like swimming downstream, watching river debris pass, get snagged, loosened, float away. A delight.
Costa 2020 Book of the Year
The Mermaid of Black Conch Monique Roffey
Remember me …
Maggie O’Farrell has taken a snippet of history and turned it into a richly descriptive and emotional tale of a young boy’s death, and how his mother, his father and his twin sister dealt with that death. That the boy’s father is a famous 16th century playwright –never named – lends a further piquancy to the tale.
Hamnet (or Hamlet as the name was also known in those times) wakes one morning to find his twin ill. He goes to seek help and is met with a blow from his grandfather and an otherwise missing household. His mother, Agnes, is tending her flowers and her bees in her old childhood home a mile away, while the others are on various errands. Having failed to fetch the physician, Hamnet returns to his sister and waits with her until their mother finds them. The sister is dying of the plague, and it seems that all of Agnes’s skills as a herbal healer are proving of no avail. Hamnet, ill himself, decides that death can be tricked into taking him, rather than his sister, and so it happens.
In between these bare bones of the story, we learn how Agnes and the boy’s father came to be together and how the marriage has evolved, including through months at a time of separation. When, a few years after Hamnet’s death, Agnes hears that her husband has written a play entitled Hamlet, without consulting or telling her, her furious sorrow takes her to London to confront him. And in that confrontation, she finds understanding.
There’s not much of a plot, there being no time slips, mysteries etc, but the characters make up for that in spades and more. Even the minor ones, even the kittens, are deeply drawn and alive to the reader. The writing is densely, gorgeously rich – so much so that towards the end I had to pace myself, feeling much as I would if I’d gorged myself on a box of dark, high quality chocolates and had to slow down to finish them off.
Well deserving of its Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.
Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020
Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell
Faith, hope and love…
Mother and daughter Marian and Susan grasp the chance for a new start in their lives by moving to the country to live with Marian’s best friend Viv, lonely since her adored daughter’s departure to university a couple of years earlier. Marian and Susan own pretty much only what’s on their back, and Susan is also recovering from years of bullying and a deep sense of her own lack of worth. In the Georgian house next door, live Luke and his young protégé Dominic. Luke appears to have it all – sophisticated, knowledgeable, running a good business in old books, and kind and considerate as well. But he has his own demons. As does Dominic, struggling with his sexuality and the subject of bullying himself.
This is a tale of many characters, with several carefully interwoven sub-plots impacting the key characters of Susan and Luke. DB Carter’s strength is very much how he brings his characters to life, warts and all. Susan grows as she allows her artistic side to flourish, and she begins to accept herself, but then that growth is threatened by horrific circumstances.
There are strong messages here, of being willing to embrace change and to take risks, to accept the choices of others where these do no one harm, and of forgiveness. A charmingly told tale, with some dark moments, but uplifting.
The Cherries DB Carter
Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton…
Grace Baxter has a terrible relationship with her rich parents, who have practically abandoned her to be raised by strict governesses. We can’t, however, feel sad for her, as she has the love of Uncle FarFar, a senior and highly respected personage in the Royal Navy, and the friendship of Billy, the son of the stablemaster. Besides, Grace doesn’t feel sorry for herself, at least not until she overhears that she’s be to wed to the gross, slobbery and totally unpleasant Lord Silverton. When Silverton shows just what he’s truly capable of, Grace takes matters into her own hands, and flees. Not just her home and London, but the country, and aboard a naval ship, disguised as a boy. Subsequently, Grace’s strong-minded and impetuous behaviour leads her in and out of all kinds of trouble, which implicates others too, with consequences I wasn’t expecting. Be aware, this story has lots of humour, but there are dark moments also, giving the story a rich emotional depth.
Emma Lombard’s debut novel, and the first in her White Sails’ series, moves at a fast pace and covers a lot of ground, or should I say a lot of ocean. Her research into life aboard a naval ship and into the exotic countries where Grace finds herself, is meticulous, and all the better for being used in a way which brings the reader on board (sorry) naturally, as if we are all as familiar with a foc’sle as the crew of Discerning. I love not having things explained to me.
There’s quite a cast of characters, and each of them is a real person, with backgrounds which we learn about as we go along, and with motivations and ambitions. This is particularly true of the handsome but imperfect Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, whose ship Grace has joined. We get to see the Lieutenant in two very different guises – one as the ship’s senior officer having to deal with all the problems of an ailing Captain and an unwanted passenger, and the other as a man falling in love with an obstinate young woman. Poor Seamus!
While the book wraps up nicely, there are background strands which I hope/expect Lombard explores in the next books in the series.
Discerning Grace is a book for lovers of adventure and danger on the high seas, of complex, interesting characters, and romance which isn’t all flutters and butterflies. A little touch of Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps?
Discerning Grace Emma Lombard
The Four Winds
A superb history lesson with a hefty dose of schmaltz & unconvincing development of protagonist.*
Normally, if I don’t like a book I leave it be. But when it’s garnered 1000s of 5 star reviews and it’s by a best-selling author, I get a little angry.
Elsa knows she’s ugly and not worth loving. Her rich parents and pretty sisters confirm this every day, although Elsa tries hard to be a good daughter and sister. She is so downtrodden, she prefers to spend her days in her room reading romantic novels to escape the unkindness of life. But one day she buys some silky red material on a whim, sews herself a flapper dress and wanders into town. Here she bumps into Rafe, a total stranger, and lets him make love to her. When Elsa falls pregnant, daddy leaves her at Rafe’s family farm for them to deal with her as they wish.
This is what happens throughout the book. Elsa faces many desperate situations, and trudges along, dealing with them in a dour, practical manner. I began to understand why the family were glad to see the back of her. And when, at the end of the book, we are faced with a new, strong Elsa risking her life for a point of principle, it was all too sudden, and too late. As for the supporting cast, I found them mostly to be shallow caricatures, being either good to saintly, or perfectly evil. And none of them interesting.
The redeeming aspect of the book was learning more about this dreadful period of American history, and how terribly the dispossessed were treated. For the rest, I won’t be rushing to buy this author again.
(*When I feel like this about a book, I go to the 3 star reviews on Amazon, after writing my own thoughts down. This is the heading of one of them. Seems I should have read that before I bought the book.)
The Four Winds Kristin Hannah
I held my breath, hoping …
Young Hannah thought she was fine after all, having been rescued from the workhouse and now comfortable as a domestic servant in a houseful of kindly women, including the mistress. But when the mistress moves away and Hannah is contracted to a new family, the mysterious and not at all pleasant Chalkes, life takes a turn for the worse. The characters are well drawn and the author describes 18th c London in vivid detail. Clothes, household activities and – the key to the tale – moral standards especially those of the double-standard type, are brought very much to life. The contrast with the healthier life enjoyed even by the very poor in the countryside is starkly drawn. I held my breath hoping …
The real history which inspired the story is also fascinating.
The Doll Factory
Depth of scene and character, beautiful imagery, make this highly appealing
Iris dreams of a better life than painting porcelain dolls. She wants to be a painter herself. Her twin sister Rose, sits beside her all day at the Doll Factory, sewing tiny clothes and eaten up with bitterness. Her face and body is ruined by smallpox, her so-close chance at a good marriage lost when she lost her looks. Silas, the taxidermist, has dreams too. Some are about the past and Flick, whom he loved. Most are about the future, and how he will raise himself to be as good as the gentlemen to whom he sells his stuffed doves and the ladies who buy his butterfly wing brooches.
What Iris and Silas have in common is Albie, a poverty-stricken street urchin with a good heart and a loving sister. And into all their lives comes Louis, the artist, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Louis transforms Iris’ life, but Silas wants her too, and he will do all that’s needed to make that dream a reality.
I was all poised to give this five stars. I was loving Macneal’s rich writing, the depth of her characters, the detail of her research – London in the mid 19thc was not a pleasant place to be unless you had money, and the PRB was of course a real movement although Macneal’s Louis was not among their members. The plot brought surprises, some you didn’t want. But the ending was a disappointment. It felt rushed, as if Macneal couldn’t wait to get the book over with (as an author I empathise!) and left me with an unsastisfied gnawing, like the unfulfilled promise of a rich dessert.
In the sweep of the bay
…how little we know of other people’s lives, even our own parents. Perhaps especially our own parents.’
Cath Barton’s novella, published in Nov 2020, is a sensitive and beautifully written insight into the lives of Ted and Rene. They marry in the ‘frail optimism’ of the 1950s, she to take up the expected role of mother and housewife, he to continue with his career as a ceramics designer in the family firm. Over time, misunderstandings and the inability to talk to each other drive a wide wedge in their marriage. While to everybody else, including their own daughters, the couple appears perfectly devoted to each other, inside it’s a different matter.
I devoured this, both for its humanity and its writing.
In the Sweep of the Bay, Cath Barton
The Map of Love
‘My name is Anna Winterbourne. I do not hold (much) with those who talk of the Stars governing our Fate’
Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love was first published in 1999. I didn’t remember reading it when I picked it from the book shelf looking for something before my new books arrived. No recollection either as I started it, but about half way in, a ticket to the Valley of the Queens tumbled from the pages and I recalled finally that I’d taken it with me when visiting Egypt in January 2001. A good choice, as Soueif’s deep knowledge of the country of her birth enriches these pages so that you feel you are truly there, especially the old Egypt. The story carries two timelines – the first in 1906 when Lady Anna Winterbourne, widowed, travels to Egypt to help her recovery from her husband’s death. There she falls in love with the country and with Sharif, a wealthy and fiercely nationalistic Egyptian landowner. In 1997, their descendants and those of Sharif’s sister, come together after decades of not knowing of each other’s existence. The story is told through modern and historic eyes, and what comes across strongly is the saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is a lot about Egyptian politics, both the British occupation and that towards the end of the 20th century. Fascinating to learn about. In between there is a beautiful old love story, and a more pragmatic modern one. Highly enjoyable.
The Map of Love , Ahdaf Soueif
The Witch’s Daughter
Learned a lot about white magic, whether true or not, it was nicely portrayed
I enjoyed this book as a pleasant read, and certainly loved the 17th century Gideon, Bess and Ann story. I thought it became more melodramatic rather than dramatic as it moved on, and the WW1 story didn’t move me at all. Well, the horses did, of course. I’m a fan of magical realism and my own current work in progress has themes vaguely related to this book. I appreciated the way Brackston delved deep into wiccan lore and tradition – whether it’s correct or not, who cares, but certain aspects of the magical elements are beautifully portrayed, eg the wild animals (also a vague theme in my Guardians series where the young protagonist can understand the wild creatures and recruits them to her cause). What I would have liked is more subtlety and emotion around the later time tales and the ending rather than straight descriptions of people floating 10ft in the air and too obvious dialogue. Not sure I would buy more but if someone gave me another of hers I wouldn’t complain.
You don’t have to be a Greek legend expert to enjoy this brilliant book
A well-deserved international best-seller, I loved Madeleine Miller’s straightforward, no-nonsense Circe. An outsider from birth, neither powerful nor beautiful, Circe’s true power lies in something the gods fear – witchcraft. Exiled to her island, Circe is content, until the arrival of Odysseus.
While the tale is engaging, a ‘must read on into the night’, it’s the language which totally won me over.
‘Gods love novelty, as I have said. They are as curious as cats.’
And there we have the gods relegated to child status, not to be taken seriously. Except … one must.
And when Circe first discovers her ability with flowers and changes Glaucos into a god – ‘… his blue chest, strapped with god muscles, and … his hands, smooth as surf-rolled shells.’
Surf-rolled shells. Sigh.
I have yet to read Song of Achilles, probably about time I did.
Circe Madeleine Miller
Everyone from age seven upwards should read this
My granddaughter at age ten is a keen and productive writer. Her stories (and re-writes of mine) are highly imaginative and pacy, with characters who leap off the page and into all kinds of trouble. I was looking for books for her and came across Coraline, which was published after my own passed the age where they might have read this. An avid Neil Gaiman fan, it struck me as just the thing. I had to read it first before giving it to her (naturally) so we could talk about it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it although wondering what impact its nightmarish qualities might have on young children!
The scary passages are genuinely scary:
‘…it scuttled down the darkened hall fast, like a little patch of night.’
There’s heartbreak too when Coraline’s parents fail to appear. Coraline has been brave, making herself a meal, running a bath, putting herself to bed. But, at 3.12 am –
‘All alone, in the middle of the night, Coraline began to cry. There was no other sound in the empty flat.’
I genuinely worried about Coraline, more than she does herself, and feared for her parents.
The cat who helps out in the other place and was simply a cat in the normal (note I don’t say ‘real’) world is brilliant. Doubtless I’m late to the party but if you haven’t yet discovered Coraline, and whether or not you have the excuse of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, godchildren etc, read it!
Coraline Neil Gaiman
The Midnight Library
Not sure this would turn me into a Matt Haig fan…
While I have nothing to complain of in terms of the writing, I was disappointed in this. A woman at death’s door – having attempted suicide because life is basically shit and she’s thrown away every opportunity to live a different life – is offered the chance to go back, do things differently and settle for a life in which she’s truly happy.
Guess what? All those regrets she’s been carrying around turn out to have been damn good decisions after all. So where is her true chance of happiness? I won’t give away the ending but you can probably guess.
The reappearance of her old librarian friend as her mentor (I guess) through her journeyings added little to the story – a convenient person for the MC to complain to as it turned out. And the appearance of another person living the same experience added nothing and was in my view a great romance opportunity lost (as in the classic Replay).
The MC seemed to me too self-obsessed. It wasn’t even that she’d had a terrible life to bring her to the suicide point but perhaps I’m being too harsh.
The Midnight Library Matt Haig
The Dutch House
Beautifully written study of the human state in its many frailities and some strengths
A novel worthy of its best seller status. The narrator, Danny, never really knew the mother who left her two small children and her husband to work with the poor in faraway India. She’s something of a saint to the two women now entrusted with Danny and his sister Maeve’s upbringiug. Maeve, much older, misses and blames her mother and their once warm father grows distant from his children. But whatever contentment the household has is cracked by the arrival of Andrea, splintered further when Andrea marries the father and brings her two daughters to live in the house, and finally shattered when the father dies and everything – the house, his business, even Maeve’s car – is left to his new wife.
The house – the Dutch house of the title – is where Danny and Maeve have always found solidity and comfort, but it is Andrea’s desperate wish to live in and own the house itself for its glorious over the top nature, which destroys their comfort and might destroy their lives.
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
Bridge of Clay
I loved this for so many reasons, chief among them being its total unashamedly ‘Australian-ness’
Frankly I’m surprised anyone who hasn’t lived in Australia understands what’s going on, there are so many unique references and they’re important to the book. But apparently this hasn’t stopped Bridge of Clay becoming a best seller. From sisters (The Sisters Grimm), I turned to brothers – five of them, living not so ordinary lives in a Sydney suburb behind a race track. The narrator, the oldest brother Matthew, tells the tales of his mother, father and the fourth brother with exquisite emotional detail. There are no heroes here, just people who hurt a lot and act accordingly, including selfishly. But resilience is at the core of this book and Clay’s bridge is a wonderful metaphor. Loved it. (But if you’re expecting a repeat of The Book Thief, forget it!)
Bridge of Clay Marcus Zusak
The Sisters Grimm
What do they remember? Will it be enough to save them and those they love?
I had this book on my TBR pile for some time and almost forgot about it until it popped up somewhere at the same time I needed to get in more reading material. So glad I added it to the order. Four eight-year-old sisters, all born on the same night, play in a white forest where they learn they have different, powerful skills -one can fly, one has a way with water, one with fire and the fourth with earth and rocks. But as they reach puberty they must leave the forest for a time and they forget … their power and their sisters.
Now, approaching their 18th birthdays, they must find each other and rediscover who they are – Sisters Grimm, born of one demanding father – if they are to have any hope of saving themselves and those they love.
Not completely a happy ending, but a satisfying one. I see there is a sequel coming out next year.
The Sisters Grimm Menna Van Praag
Winter, 1617. The sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. A young woman, Maren, watches as the men of the island, out fishing, perish in an instant. Vardø is now a place of women.
For a time at least, and the women find it tough but are managing. Then comes ambitious Absalom Cornet with his reforming zeal and iron morals. He has brought with him a young wife, Ursa, more used to civilised life as a merchant’s daughter in Bergen. Ursa needs a friend and she finds one in Maren, a woman of the island. Their friendship is fraught, two women from very different cultures, and it plays out to a dramatic end.
I was there on that bleak island with those women – Hargrave’s beautiful writing vividly brings their lives to light from the smallest domestic detail to their deepest emotions.
The Mercies reminded me strongly of my own The Shanty Keeper’s Wife with its theme of how women come to be blamed so easily for the sins of men.
The Mercies Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
London, 1826 Frannie Langton is about to be tried for the murder of her master and mistress, Mr and Mrs Benham. But Frannie loved her mistress – how could she have murdered her?
Frannie Langton is born on a Jamaican plantation to a black slave and the master of the house, John Langton. As such she is neither slave nor free and has but one real friend in this world. When her father teaches her to read, Frannie discovers he is not acting from any alturistic motive. As a girl still she is sent to London to serve as the maidservant of Mrs Benham, whose husband is Langton’s ‘medical experiment’ partner. A deeply shocking and involving book, written with a sharp conciseness which allows us to get inside Frannie’s head and suffer with her. A must read for any lover of historical fiction and mystery.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton Sara Collins
The Starless Sea
A bee, a key and a sword – clues on the cover of a strange book which will lead Zachary Rawlins into a labyrinth of stories and to Mirabel and Dorian.
I loved The Night Circus so this was a natural for me when it came out not too long ago (there appears to be no date on my hardback, signed copy and I wonder if this means something??) This is a book to take your time over, to curl on the sofa with the dog at your feet and/or the cat on your lap and fall into this world alongside the curious Zachary. A kind of grownup and highly expanded Alice in Wonderland, with gorgeous writing and – is there a plot? – yes, I think so. One to read again to find all those things you missed the first time. Pure pleasure.
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
‘Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes …’
How can you not read a book with that opening line? It sets the tone of the world Naomi Novik builds so skilfully, a world where the Dragon – an ageless wizard – has protected Agnieszka’s village from the horrors of the Wood since time out of mind. He has a price however, and that’s for one girl from the village to serve him for ten years. Agnieszka is born in the right, or perhaps wrong, year to be a candidate but all expect him to take Agnieszka’s best friend, the prettier and brave Kasia. When he chooses her, Agnieszka embarks on a new life which is as demanding as it is – in the end – worth all her pain and despair.
A rollicking pace, alive characters and a story to keep your heart in your mouth, I loved Uprooted. And also Novik’s more recent Spinning Silver which makes you wonder what does go on in this author’s head.